Casual moviegoers are probably unaware of the bitter rivalry between fans of the Marvel films — Featuring Avengers like Iron Man, Captain America, The Hulk, etc. — and the DC movies — Starring the Justice League of Superman, Batman, Wonder Woman, etc. But one fact is clear: between the two, Marvel films are better received by critics, and make more money at the box office.
Since the seminal Batman film “The Dark Knight,” DC and its parent company, Warner Brothers, have tried time and time again to recapture that magic of a unique blend of comic book inspiration with gritty, dark characters and storylines, and time and again they’ve come up short — until now.
“Joker” is the best DC movie since “The Dark Knight,” and quite possibly one of the five best films released this year. The hype has been at a fever pitch, especially after the film won the top prize at this year’s Venice Film Festival.
Joaquin Phoenix stars as Arthur Fleck, a clown and amateur comedian who lives with his mother in a crummy apartment in Gotham City. As his mental health deteriorates and his fortunes decline, he resorts to murder in self defense of an attack on the subway, and finds relief, even enjoyment, in the act.
The performances delivered by the cast are all top of the line, but this movie belongs to Phoenix. He is phenomenal, and under a lesser actor, the material wouldn’t have worked as well. He is an uncomfortable presence as the protagonist, and you’re never sure when he’s going to snap. Therefore, in spite of his steady descent into madness, you are with him the whole way, and his journey into becoming a psychopath is almost justified.
In tandem with the script, the film makes the right decision in making Arthur extremely sympathetic: by showing a lack of a father figure in his life, having to care for his disabled mother, and being the victim of several awful beatings in public. There’s even a severely creepy notebook he writes his feelings and ideas for jokes in. His handwriting is so rudimentary it gets your skin to crawl, and it looks exactly how a serial killer’s notebook would. Incidentally, this notebook is scarier than anything from “It: Chapter Two.”
Fans of the comic books may be disappointed in the departures from the famous mysterious origin of the character. He doesn’t have a pregnant wife who is murdered by gangsters, or get involved in a botched robbery causing him to fall in a vat of chemicals turning his face white, and he never wears a purple suit. But this is a different Joker — one who was already unstable and is pushed further by a cruel environment and an indifferent power structure.
There’s a lot to like in the movie, from the surprisingly great direction from comedy veteran Todd Phillips, to the stupendous string dominated musical score by Hildur Guðnadóttir, to even the ingenious addition to the character by giving him a laughing disease, which is based on a real disorder. Ultimately, Arthur is also an unreliable narrator, and it allows for twists in the story that most won’t expect.
I dare say this movie revitalizes the DC cinematic universe, something Warner Brothers desperately needed after the quadruple misfire of “Man of Steel,” “Batman V Superman,” “Suicide Squad,” and “Justice League.” DC tried to go the dark route once again, and for the first time they got it right.
A film based on a comic that isn’t constantly trying to remind you of that, or filled with superheroes, is a rarity in this era of big budget movies. If you’re looking for an Avengers style lighthearted adventure, steer clear. But if you’re interested in something ripe for the Halloween season to truly get under your skin, this is one of the most bold, risk taking movies of the year.
- Atmospheric, highly tense.
- Stupendous performances, especially from Phoenix.
- Great musical accompaniment.
- Derivative of “Taxi Driver,” so if you’re familiar with that it may bore you.
- Not a date night movie.
- Can be uncomfortable to watch at points.